Less than a year after state Supreme Court justices declared the state had properly implemented its plan to fully fund basic education, which included significantly reducing how much local taxpayers could contribute, the state Legislature on Sunday undid one of the key elements of the funding plan.
Specifically, lawmakers raised the amount of money school districts can collect from local levies, from $1.50 per $1,000 of a house’s assessed value to $2.50.
This puts the state back on a path toward inequity in school funding, which is exactly what the Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional.
The use of local property levies created a gap between state funding and the actual cost of operating schools, resulting in a system that substantial favors property-rich school districts such as Bellevue and Mercer Island.
The Democrat-controlled House and Senate opted to raise the levy lid to essentially fix their own blunders. The structure of the K-12 funding plan approved last year allowed some school districts (Walla Walla was not one of them) to raise teacher salaries to a level so high that they could not be sustained beyond this year.
Other problems surfaced such as funding for special education.
Nevertheless, in the long run, we believe it is a mistake lawmakers went down this path. The reliance on local funding, which was 30 percent of total spending in many school districts, was the catalyst for the state being sued for not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education.
The Legislature’s move to raise the lid means that taxpayers in the Walla Walla School District are going to see their property taxes go up $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.
The deal made in the past two years by the Legislature called for the statewide school property tax to go up 82 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation from $1.97 to $2.79. But the overall property tax was supposed to go down about $2 per $1,000 of assessed value when the cap of the local levy was set at $1.50. The voter approved levy was $3.51. The levy rate will now be $2.50.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal favored raising the levy lid to help avert a funding crisis.
He is correct that it does help avoid a funding crisis in the short term — but it is a crisis of the lawmakers’ own doing. They basically passed a blank check that too many school districts used.
Now we are all going to pay.
But this levy-lid increase alone isn’t going to make school funding sustainable. Lawmakers are going to be dealing with this mess for years to come.
And we fear local taxpayers are going to continue to be seen as solution.